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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Middle: “Halloween V” / The Goldbergs: “Family Takes Care of Beverly”

Illustration for article titled iThe Middle/i: “Halloween V” / iThe Goldbergs/i: “Family Takes Care of Beverly”
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The Middle: “Halloween V”

As it has been since the beginning, so does it continue to be: even six seasons into its run, the holidays still bring out the best in The Middle.

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For a holiday that’s ultimately beloved more by children than adults – the promise of free candy will do that – it’s only appropriate that this week’s annual Halloween installment focuses almost exclusively on the Heck kids, but it’s also a wonderful surprise to find that Axl, Sue, and Brick all manage to have extremely solid storylines.

Let’s go in order of youngest to oldest and kick things off with Brick, who not only decides that he’s too old for trick-or-treating, thereby sending Frankie into a brief burst of sentimentality (which is promptly soured by Mike, who reminds her that it’s been a couple of years since she’s bothered to go trick-or-treating with Brick anyway), but also reveals that his friend Cindy is going to come over to “hang.” It’s an announcement that throws Frankie and Mike, as well it might, but after expressing momentary concern about the fact that Mike’s never talked to him about “hanging” (“I figured it’d be years before this kind of situation came up”), they decide that the cumulative weirdness between Brick and Cindy is such that their best bet is probably just to strap in and enjoy the show.

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And what a show it is: Cindy’s wearing what has now clearly been established as her trademark hat, and while she’s clearly comfortable enough with Brick to let him put his arm around her, their mutual lack of comprehension about romantic logistics leads to a scenario that Frankie describes as “the oddest thing I’ve ever seen, but it seems to be working.” Indeed, it does, right up until the point when Brick decides that he actually does want to go trick-or-treating, leaving Cindy all by herself on the couch. Frankie can’t help but try to salvage the situation by keeping Cindy happy – shrimp, ahoy! – and she and Mike immediately take Brick to task as soon as he steps back into the house.

Brick’s initial response to Frankie’s criticism is a fair one – he’s right: he did get a girl to come over to his house, which ain’t too shabby – but once Mike steps into the fray, Brick starts to listen up, particularly when Mike starts doling out all the things he needs to do if he ever wants to experience his second kiss. Obviously, this is the scene where all the long-married husbands in the audience allow themselves a few quiet chuckles, making sure not to laugh so hard that their wives hear them. (As my wife has been known to read these reviews, I will only say that it’s probably best that I was alone in the house as I was screening the episode.) While it’s a bummer that we didn’t see Cindy one last time before the credits rolled, that minor disappointment was countered by the final few moments of the episode, with Mike quizzing Brick on possible date scenarios.

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Sue’s story put a Halloween spin on the “Sue Heck wins” tales we’ve seen before, but there were several unique aspects that made it stand out from the crowd, starting with the fact that the focus was on her efforts to earn money for college rather than to make any sort of social headway. (Not that her longstanding cheerleader nemeses didn’t still manage to muck things up for her anyway, which was a nice callback.) No matter how things played out, Sue’s story was always going to be a highlight of the episode, thanks to Brad’s brilliant Grease-inspired costume and Sue’s summation of it as “so confusing and yet so you,” but bonus points were earned by the appearance of Jerry Hardin as a crusty but good-natured old farmer - think equal parts Gabby Hayes, Walter Brennan, and Dub Taylor - who, although he ends up being Sue’s only attendee, kindly slips her $50 for all the work she put into the evening. It’s an almost negligible blip on the ol’ “Sue-mometer,” but you know Sue: it’s a step in the right direction, so it only serves to cement her optimism that she’s going to be able to make this college thing work.

And so we come to Axl, whose story really should’ve been the least of the three, given that all he really did was get locked in the library overnight, and yet it ultimately ended up having the most emotional heft of the bunch. The fact that he was writing a paper about Pearl Harbor ended up being a red herring, but it did give us his educational motto (“Given the choice to learn about stuff through Ben Affleck or not, I always choose Ben Affleck”) while also successfully leading him to the library, so I’ll allow it. It was hard to tell where things were going when Axl started monologuing to the bust of William Shakespeare, and for a brief moment, it seemed as though the fact that he called the Bard “Lebron” was going to be the most memorable moment of the whole affair, but from there…

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My memory is not such that I can readily tell you if this was really the first time we’ve seen Axl spend a night by himself, but nor am I going to do the research to confirm or deny the claim, because the end result was a shining moment from Charlie McDermott, with Axl admitting to “Lebron” that he doesn’t even know what it means to be a business major, has no idea what the future holds, and – perhaps worst of all – he’s scared to death that his much-vaunted “awesomeness” isn’t going to carry over into the real world. For all the high jinks and slacking-off that are hallmarks of the Axl Heck we’ve come to know and love, this is another sign that he’s growing up, as is his decision to leave the library and, after getting properly dressed, to go visit his family, feign a desire to visit the “losers,” and then finally admit outright that he’s clueless about business. The result: several semi-valid suggestions for possible career options and, most importantly, the assurance that he’s still got some time yet to figure out his future.

Stray observations:

  • Sue’s feeling a little overwhelmed about her financial situation. “You and me both, pal,” replies Mike, between swigs of beer.
  • “Okay, whatever that is, I want one!” Brad is always Team Sue.
  • I don’t actually want a spin-off of the now-graduated cheerleaders, but I like the fact that we know that it’s taking its toll on their relationship that they’re now living together, and if we never see them again, at least they failed to recognize “Brad’s new freshman friend” one last time.
  • Cindy arrived at the Heck house at 6:53 but hung out in the bushes until it was 7:00. Yep, she seems perfect for Brick.
  • “You know the Peanuts fans: they’re a late-arriving crowd.”
  • Axl’s uncertainty about how to work a rotary phone felt realistic and yet made me sad.
  • Several nice callbacks to past episodes, including Brick’s kiss in North Carolina, but my favorite was probably the reappearance of Brick’s cell phone. (“Remind me why we bought this again?”)
  • Henceforth, I would prefer to have all of my bad news delivered by Sandy or Danny from Grease.
  • Even though I’ve spent my life on the east coast, I appreciate that Hecks seemed utterly befuddled by someone asking for shrimp in Indiana.
  • On Mike’s list of things a guy has to do to get a kiss (or anything else), I laughed hardest – and, again, only because my wife wasn’t home – at “doing errands together for some reason.” Those last three words were the best part, because it was clear from the delivery that, even after twenty-something years of marriage, Mike still doesn’t get that one.
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The Goldbergs: “Family Takes Care of Beverly”

Don’t get me wrong: when an episode kicks off with Adam in a kick-ass Voltron costume and Pops decked out in his best Burt Reynolds attire, there’s no question that you’re looking at a Halloween episode, but…this wasn’t really a Halloween episode. Not that we didn’t still get a few good holiday-themed jokes at the beginning of the proceedings, like Beverly’s refusal to let Adam have any of his candy before she taking it to the hospital for an x-ray, but for the most part, Halloween was used strictly for set-up purposes.

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And, hey, it worked: Halloween means candy, thereby providing an excuse for Pop Rocks to be lying around and, in turn, setting up an opportunity for Erica to almost mix them with soda. The quick riff on urban legends is fun for those of us who fell victim to stupid rumors in the pre-internet days (I’d somehow never heard the “Mr. Rogers was a sniper” story before), but despite Erica’s assurances that no one – not even Mikey – has ever died from the Pop Rocks and soda combo, Barry refuses to accept it as truth and demands that she live up to the Bushido code and repay the debt she owes him for having saved her life. She relents, mostly just to get him to stop saying “Bushido code,” and agrees to get Lainey to have pizza with him, only to come back and say that Lainey has written him off as “gross” and won’t do it.

It’s a lie, as it turns out, but Barry won’t be stopped by mere insult-laden rejection, instead gathering his crew – JTP, represent! – to back him up as he tries his best to rap his way into her heart, bustin’ rhymes about punching a tiger, swimming the Allegheny, Joanie Loves Chachi, and Turner and Hooch. Initially, all it gets him is the truth from Lainey about Erica’s chicanery and, when he goes to confront his sister about her actions, a trip to the hospital with an obstructed bowel. But there’s something about your brother being in the hospital that makes you reconsider your choices, and as a result, Erica gets Lainey to visit Barry in the hospital, and although she’s not fully committing to the poor bastard quite yet, she concedes that his persistence is misguided and annoying but kinda cute. Given what we’ve come to know about Barry, that should keep him going ‘til the end of the series.

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Given that Barry and Erica’s stories are tied together this week, everyone else is lumped into the episode’s other storyline, which involves Pops getting thrown out of his place and coming to live with the Goldbergs at Bev’s behest. You don’t have to be aware of much about the mythology of the series to suspect that this plan of action isn’t going to sit well with Murray, who’s always been a real “king of his castle” kind of guy, but he’s not worried about it at first because he can’t imagine Pops is ever going to put up with being stuck in the attic. I twitched a bit at the amount of work Bev ostensibly did on her own to whip the attic space into shape, but it was done with such an unabashed wink at the audience, that it’s all good. Besides, it was crystal clear almost immediately that it was going to be a short-lived living situation when Murray roared out a lengthy list of rules, only for Pops to quickly decide to ignore virtually the whole lot of them.

As it turns out, Pops is just fine with moving to the Shady Willows retirement community: it’s Bev who has the problem with it, fearing that sending her father to a retirement community is only a stone’s throw away from ending up all alone in her golden years, abandoned by her own kids the way she’s abandoning her father. Things start to get a little exaggerated at this point, with Bev having a war of words with Adam about what the future might hold for him and, after realizing that he’s not happy with the idea of a future with his mother living with him, climbing into Adam’s treehouse to drown her sorrows in the limited amount of Halloween candy he still has left. Thankfully, Murray assures her that her kids are never going to abandon her because they know how much she loves her own father. In turn, Bev apologizes to Pops and everyone’s happy…well, except for Adam, who’d just as soon live at Shady Willows with his grandfather. But even he comes around in the end, admitting that there’ll always be a place for his mother in his life.

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Stray observations:

  • I feel Adam’s pain when it comes to Halloween: as recently as a few days ago, my mother suggested that we exercise caution in regards to the candy my daughter will be getting at a local Trunk or Treat event, because you just never know.
  • I am quite sure my parents’ record player has never been the same since a neighborhood buddy of mine played me and a couple of other guys a tape of a preacher railing on about “backward masking” on albums. Turn me on, dead man…
  • The cut from Pops saying, “Trick or treat, baby!” to the shot of the burnt apartment made me laugh very hard, as did the Pops / Bev exchange: “So I can stay?” “Oh, God, no!”
  • The back and forth between Murray’s and Bev’s rules was pretty great.
  • When Adam delivered a drink to his dad, I loved the way Murray pointedly referenced to it as a “delicious martini.”
  • I can’t decide which is the greatest accomplishment: George Segal’s declaration that “when the necktie’s on the door, the pants are on the floor,” or Murray’s description of Pops and his lady friend’s amorous moment as looking like “a couple of hairless cats fighting in pizza dough.” But neither of them tops Pops’ look of horror when he says, “It appears I have popped another waterbed while entertaining a female friend.”
  • Barry is uncertain: should he go with his fanciest Flavor Flav clock, “or should I go digital to show her I’m a modern man?”
  • I know it didn’t sound anything remotely like a real conversation, but I still loved the heated back-and-forth between Adam and Bev.
  • “How’s your butt?” “Horrible!”
  • There’s been a lot of buzz over the past day or two about how The Goldbergs are following up their Goonies homage from last season by tackling Ferris Bueller’s Day Off this time around, but we got a momentary John Hughes tribute tonight as well…or didn’t you think the way Lainey and Barry were sitting in the hospital looked familiar?

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